Yudbeny’s Alphabet

June 21st, 2012

The world around me in a large room located at the back of an old house is barely changing.

The room is cold. It is some time after noon. Across the room, a black maid wears a blue apron and chops potatoes into long slender shapes. As her wet hands let the starchy shapes hit the pan, a radio voice singing in Spanish cries out in between violent crackles of oil on hot iron. The potatoes fry and the music doesn’t stop.

Somewhere in between the maid and I is a rotund woman who wears not an apron, but a sleeveless shirt. Her red frizzy hair is tied back behind her head in an old-fashioned bun. As she moves toward me, she sings to the music and wiggles her wide hips playfully.

In her hands she is balancing a piping hot bowl of white broth. She sets it down. I start eat. Lunch begins in the old house.

Yudbeny Gonzalez, the eccentric proprietor of the house where I now stay, turns, still singing, and sways back toward the sizzling oil. Yudbeny came from Huila, a department south of Bogotá where security issues are still prevalent, six or seven years ago. She is one of many Bogotanos who have moved to the city to escape minimum opportunity and the dangers of more rural parts of Colombia.

Now Yudbeny, along with her Mexican husband Alfredo, whose mornings are normally occupied by reading one of the national newspapers, El Tiempo, through a magnifying glass the size of an orange, own an historic faux-tudor style house in a neighborhood called Palermo.

Yudbeny and her husband own a handful of these old beauties in the Palermo and their primary profession is renting rooms to students, young professionals, and expatriates like myself.

Yudbeny pauses in the middle of her feast-making and plops down in the chair across from me. I have begun the daily chore of slurping my ajiaco, a thick Andean soup made with potatoes, corn, and cilantro.

The menu at Yudbeny’s house, much like the tired peeling paint on its walls, its faulty drainage system (whose being neglected causes dripping in several of its rooms during the wet season rains), and the stubborn, sticky keyholes on the locks that protect it, does not change.

The things that Yudbeny says and does, however, do.

Today, Yudbeny calls me niño (or little boy) and by doing so she exalts herself to a location far above me, where the Colombian mother is almost a goddess watching over the banalities of my youthful, masculine, yet ultimately boyish ways. It gives Yudbeny the power to ask. Yudbeny asks me about my love life, and about my work-life, and about when I will become the next President of the United States, and why it is so hard for Colombians to get a visa to the US, and how I like the women here, and whether or not I like her food, and which fruits I’ve tasted recently and why haven’t I tried this exotic new fruit that Yudbeny says I must try. Everyday it seems like there is a new fruit to try.

Today it is the Cherimoya.

I correct her about being a boy. “I am a man,” I say. She ignores me.

The broth of my soup is nearly gone. What is left is a large, unwieldy bone with a single morsel of beef dangling off the edge. Being the well-mannered man I am I lift the bone carefully out of the bowl and position it on a plate near by. Fork in one hand, knife in the other, I begin the final butchering of my meal.

Yudbeny protests and gestures with her hands and mouth to grab up the bone in my hands and tear the meat off with my teeth.

I do not follow her rule.

She probes for details about mature topics – love and money and politics – topics that seem to appear out of thin air like demons for me. I am the tongue-tied informant, who must capture and tame her probing questions before moving on to the next puzzle inside Yudbeny’s labyrinth.

Her questions are like temptations. And as the questions unroll I know, like always, that soon Yudbeny and her labyrinthine alphabet will find some way to ensnare me. No matter my seriousness, Yudbeny finds a way to disarm it with comedy.

Yudbeny has a way about her.

It seems that she has the uncanny ability to fix the young men who occupy her rooms and quarters into niños – little boys – and keep our becoming serious from growing up into men – from becoming dealers of love and money and politics. Us men, well, we are just boys waiting at Yudbeny’s table – not just for her food, but her alphabet too. Yudbeny is the eternal mother for men who wish to be boys for a quiet hour.

“Be careful,” she says to me. She always smiles after she says this, as if she knows more about what comes next than I do.

Mothering, more than money, I think, is Yudbeny’s plot. Every day there is a masterful trial designed to entangle me in a linguistic bind, to entwine me in her idioms, to corner me in a place where my forthright explanations about serious things often come across as juvenile, plain, and ultimately innocent. Yudbeny just laughs.

Often I feel like Don Quixote de la Mancha (a serious man tirelessly striving to demonstrate serious action, but where my granter of judgments lets only comedy precipitate). Except in Yudbeny’s kitchen there is no Sancho Panza to remind me what it feels like to be sane in this house that does not let one change. There is only Yudbeny – temptress, enchantress – to lead me away from my seriousness and into a distraction of theatrical fits and tricks and laughter. I am sure of my conclusions. Yudbeny wants me to slip, to fall, to come crashing down from my seriousness and formalities – in a sense, my being a young man. She wants me to break the rules of her alphabet so that she can laugh at me, and so that I can make confessions to her without being so serious, so that we might be distracted from the hard truths that come pouring out of her questions, and so that she might be able to put life against the mundane chaos of the sizzling and the clinking and the scratchy singing radio noises of her old, decaying, unchanging house.

Learning a language is uncomfortable, but it is a whimsical thing in the company of Yudbeny and her house.

Yudbeny, despite daily theatrics, teaches me her language. In a sense Yudbeny teaches me how to be.

But there is a rule in Spanish that makes being difficult for an English-speaker.

The rule is that there are two kinds of being. There is the verb ser. Ser means to be. Then there is the verb estar. Estar also means to be.

“What sort of grand trickery is this?!” I ask myself.

Growing up in Spanish (indeed in other Latin languages as well) you live through two modes of existence – you live inside two ideas of what it means to be.

The first, ser, is used when you want to declare that something is normal, unchanging, and fixed. A normalized type of being could be the meaning of where someone is from, the time of day, or the beauty or ugliness of an old empty church crumbling in the middle of a city.

The second is estar. Using estar is for declaring the being of states or conditions of emotion, feeling, location, and a long list of other things that have lives of a more transient sort. Estar is used when you want to declare whether or not someone is feeling blue, or to say whether someone is standing inside or outside that crumbling church at some precise moment in time.

Like choosing whether to act like a man or a boy at Yudbeny’s table, I must choose my way of being at each step along the way in Yudbeny’s maze of questions.

Sometimes I feel like a shepherd, and these two essential words are my mischievous sheep. Playing with them is fun. Yet my livelihood depends on them and that is a serious business.These days I feel as though I must always choose: to be a boy or to be a man.

Yudbeny performs a string of examples to help me out:

“Estoy aqui. Estoy contenta. Soy una mujer. Soy Colombiana. Soy mágica. Soy divina.”

I am here. I am happy. I am a woman. I am Colombian. I am magic. I am divine.

“I’m divine,” is the last thing Yudbeny says. She shoots me an enchanting smile as she says it, again, showing on her face a message that says that she will know more about being, in some ways, than I ever will. Then she laughs.

Trying to draw the line between these two ways of being, I watch Yudbeny turn and move toward the stove. Janet, the black maid from the Chocó, attends to a patacón frying on top of the the hot iron. The room is cold. On the walls, I can see the paint peeling on the old house. The room feels decadent. It feels as though it cannot change no matter how much it wants to. It is too old.

Yudbeny explains that the house falls under a certain class of housing called patrimonio cultural where the owners of the property are legally forbidden to make changes to the house. In other words the laws governing the old house say that the house is and it always will be the way it is.

Other things, however, are changing fast around us. In less than one week, I will leave Yudbeny and her old house. She does not know this. I slurp the last bit of my soup and push the bowl and the bone aside. I am done. Lunch is finished.

No matter how much Yudbeny wants a young man to seem like a boy forever, young men want to grow up. They are done being boys. Boys, I realize, have a tendency to run away from their mothers in order to become men. But the best of them remember that the seriousness and pain that comes out of realizing maturity and the responsibilities of masculinity are best buried deep within the secretive vaults and chambers of memory of a comical muse like Yudbeny Gonzalez.

Contemplating my linguistic maturity inside the realm of Yudbeny’s alphabet, I escape from the noise and try to find some presence and assemble what I have just learned.

“Let’s practice,” I tell myself.

Estoy aqui. Estoy feliz. Soy Americano. Yo era un niño. Ya soy un hombre.

I am here. I am happy. I am American. I used to be a boy. Now I am a man.

Yudbeny looks at me. She knows I am reciting words in my head. She can see it on my face. “What is it?” she says. “Nothing, I tell her.” The reason I don’t tell her is because, well, too much could change, and this is a house where things are not supposed to change.

Some time much later, another white bowl hits the surface of Yudbeny’s table. Like yesterday it is piping hot. Not cold. It is in front of me. I do not slurp. I quietly eat like a man. I eat like a man against a house and a woman that tell me, “Niño, do not change.”

Forgive me. But some things must.

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